Germany turns to teenagers to teach kids about digital stress

How do you teach tech-savvy children to deal with digital stress? In Germany, they're turning to teenagers.

Experts and teachers say peer projects in which older pupils teach younger kids how to cope with constant messaging or cyber-bullying have proven successful. While their parents grew up without smartphones and are unable to relate to the problems they can cause, two-thirds of kids in Germany today have them by the age of 11.

At the Gesamtschule Borbeck in the western German city of Essen, 11-year-old Simon Scharenberg said: "I often get a thousand messages a day in a [WhatsApp messaging app] group, like in the 'We like Pizza' group – that's the name of the group of our class. And that bothers me."

"Medienscouts" (media scouts) sessions at the school have seen teenagers hold brainstorming sessions with primary-aged pupils in which they discuss issues including how to handle hurtful posts, what sort of material is acceptable to post and the pressures of participating in group chats. The focus is on the personal impact of digital media and communication, as opposed to more commonly taught "media skills" such as how to read and watch online news.

As they grow older, children also participate in workshops about media copyright issues or sexting, and, at the end of eighth grade (when pupils are aged 13-14), they take a test to obtain a "mobile licence" which allows them to use their smartphones at certain times at school.

The exam includes questions such as what should you do when someone sends an embarrassing Snapchat photo of a fellow student – the answer, of course, being don't forward the picture to others.

At Borbeck – a school of 1,000 pupils – there are 32 students teaching in the media scouts programme, which was was founded in 2011 by public authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Education is managed separately by each of the country's 16 states in Germany, and 11 have established similar programmes across hundreds of schools.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, 766 schools have signed up, and more than 3,120 high school students have been trained as scouts. The project is run by Sven Hulvershorn, of the federal state media authority.

"Four media scouts are trained per school, usually at the age of 15, and these four media scouts then train all other schoolmates. That is education at eye level. It is quasi-instruction by peers and, in the end, also by experts of the real world," he explained.

Beyond practical tricks, such as turning off the setting that allows the sender to see if a message has been read, the older students talk with the younger ones about learning how to take breaks from their smartphone, and not letting WhatsApp take over their lives.

One of the school's media scouts is 18-year-old Chantal Hueben. She explained what she believes is behind the programme's success, saying: "We are just on the same level. We are also students and I also believe that we can build up this buddy relationship with them. For me it was simply a matter of passing on what I myself have learned from the media scouts."